35 Years Ago: Violent Femmes Discovered by the Pretenders While Busking in Milwaukee
Sometimes, it's all about being in the right place at the right moment. Other times, it's all about a good anecdote. The Violent Femmes' origin story includes elements of both.
Still undiscovered, the Femmes set up on Aug. 23, 1981, outside the Oriental Theatre in their hometown of Milwaukee, hoping to attract the attention of fans as they gathered for a show by the Pretenders. Instead, the Violent Femmes ended up as the opening act when the late Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott stumbled onto their sidewalk performance.
"We had to play in the streets because no one wanted us to play in the clubs," Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie told Spin in 2015. "I would say the thing about the Pretenders that was inspiring at the time was that these great international touring musicians recognized that we were interesting, whereas the people in Milwaukee thought we were losers. We knew that our music was great."
History now often tells us that Pretenders leader Chrissie Hynde's offhanded overture hurtled the Violent Femmes to stardom. Not exactly says singer-songwriter Gordon Gano. "It’s a true story, but it wasn’t a break," Gano said, in the same Spin interview. "It was a tremendous experience, but it didn’t lead to going on tour, getting any more gigs, getting hooked up in the industry, getting a record contract — none of that."
In truth, they were met that night in Milwaukee with a shower of boos. Still, the Violent Femmes were not left unchanged; the experience bolstered them at just the right time. "We went from persona non grata to being on stage with a famous band," Ritchie told Double J in 2014. "It told us we were on the right track."
Fast forward another whole year, and the Violent Femmes played their first New York City gig as a support group for Richard Hell. That led to a glowing write up by the late Robert Palmer for the New York Times, focusing exclusively on the Femmes rather than Hell. They then signed with Slash Records, but didn't release the band's classic self-titled folk-punk debut until 1983.
"It was charming," Gano said of the Pretenders' invite. "We were so confident, but it was great to get that compliment – not because we needed it, but it was a wonderful and inspiring thing. We also learned a few technical things that night. I still stretch out my guitar strings like James Honeyman-Scott showed me. But as far as a break, that was here in New York when we opened up for Richard Hell at CBGB’s."
In keeping with their slow rise to initial fame, Violent Femmes took some eight years to go platinum. It had earlier reached 500,000 in sales without ever appearing on the Billboard album chart. So, as interesting as their intersection with the Pretenders no doubt was, the Violent Femmes were just beginning a lengthy journey when they walked off the stage at the Oriental that night.
Really what they left with was one of the great rock 'n' roll stories. "Later, when we were on tour and had a record out on Slash," Gano added, "it was a fun thing to talk about."